Pop Culture

Crazy life, booming business of Nick Cannon

Nick Cannon firmly believes in the power of positive thinking.

Ask the 29-year-old how his various achievements came about — successful stand-up comic at 15 years old, staff writer for Nickelodeon's “All That” and “Kenan & Kel at 17,” CEO of his own production company NCredible, chairman of the TeenNick cable network, host of NBC's hit “America's Got Talent” and a daily radio show, and loving husband to one of the most famous women in the world — and he'll tell you that he willed them to happen by telling the universe what he wanted. “I truly believe in speaking things into existence,” says Cannon. “Not to get all Tony Robbins, but you speak it, and it can definitely happen to you.”

It may sound like so much New Age hokum, but it seems to be working. After garnering fame on Nickelodeon, Cannon landed a breakout role in 2002's sleeper hit “Drumline.” He was labeled the next Will Smith, but his follow-up films (2003's “Love Don't Cost a Thing,” 2005's “Underclassman”) flopped. Rather than falling into straight-to-DVD obscurity, however, the former It Boy has embarked on one of the more surprising second acts in the entertainment industry. Meet Nick Cannon: mini-mogul.

“He could almost be a combo of Jay-Z, Dick Clark, and David Geffen,” says MTV's president of programming/development, Tony DiSanto. Adding to his public profile, of course, is his marriage to the 40-year-old Mariah Carey, whom Cannon calls an “angel.” Says Carey, “He is probably the only person I know that matches me in drive and ambition.” And Cannon couldn't be happier with phase 2 of his career. “I'm past my stage of wanting to be a star,” he admits, sitting behind his desk at TeenNick's Times Square offices. “To be honest, I've always made more money behind the scenes.”

Fresh off his run on “All That,” Cannon toplined “Drumline” — and when it grossed a surprising $56 million at the box office, the young actor became an instant commodity. But Cannon did his stock no favors by choosing his subsequent projects based on quantity (as in number of dollars) instead of quality.

“They started throwing every movie [at me] and I chose bad,” says Cannon bluntly. “I didn't understand that you had to be strategic. I was like, ‘A couple million dollars?! I get to shoot a gun?! Let's go!’” One of his biggest regrets is passing on a supporting role opposite Ludacris in “Crash.” “Cut to two years later,” he says with a laugh, “they're at the Oscars.”

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He did manage to learn from his silver-screen disappointments — he took roles in smaller, independent films (2007's “Weapons,” 2009's “The Killing Room”) to better show his range as an actor, and turned his attention back to television by creating the MTV improv series “Wild 'N Out.” It ran for four seasons and was an important step in diversifying his portfolio.

Meanwhile, he applied a similar perseverance to his personal life. For years, Cannon would tell any interviewer who asked that his celebrity crush was Mariah Carey (consider this yet another example of speaking something into existence); he even persuaded Nickelodeon to arrange for him to present an award to the multi-platinum singer at the Teen Choice Awards in 2005. Then came a business meeting in 2008 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I put on my good cologne,” says Cannon, who had been approached by Carey about directing her new video. “Did some push-ups. Tried to get my grown-man look on.”

The icebreaker came when Cannon said a prayer before the duo indulged in a plate of french fries, leading to some good-natured teasing from Carey and a discussion of spirituality. “You never know who's sincere and who's not, and he probably thought the same about me,” says Carey. “We both pretty much proved it right there because I had my little electronic Bible in my bag.” Adds Cannon, “From that day on, we were inseparable.”

After a few weeks of dating, the pair married in April 2008 at Carey's home in the Bahamas, shocking pretty much everyone (sample headline: “Mariah & Nick Wedding Reports: Real Love or Real Stunt?”).

“There were people who were for it and there were more people who were against,” says Cannon, who sports a 17-carat diamond wedding band designed by Carey. “You have to ask the question: Is your heart more important than your career? Absolutely. I was like, If I don't do anything else ever again in the entertainment industry, I'm in love with this woman.” Carey, on the other hand, has no tolerance for the public scrutiny: “I'm not gonna walk down the street and go, ‘Who the hell are those two to be married?’”

Having landed his dream girl, Cannon set his sights on another seemingly unattainable goal — his own TV network.

Full of confidence, he pitched himself for the job of CEO of Nickelodeon's teen channel, then titled The N (now TeenNick). He assembled an elaborate presentation for Nickelodeon execs, including network demographics, his own Q rating among audiences, and expected profit from his involvement.

“We were all staring at him in awe,” remembers Marjorie Cohn, Nickelodeon's exec VP of development and original programming. “The idea of actually making him chairman felt completely right.” Cohn scoffs at the notion that Cannon, who began his gig at the network in March 2009, is simply a celebrity figurehead. “He's actually chairman of TeenNick,” she insists. “He's developing specific projects. But he's also the creative force behind our on-air communications strategy.”

Cannon's influence has already been seen on screen: He developed the network's HALO Awards, celebrating teens active in community service, and on Feb. 21 the network will air “School Gyrls,” a TV movie musical that Cannon wrote and directed. The film's girl group is one of seven acts signed to Cannon's NCredible record label; their debut album is set for release this March.

The multihyphenate's schedule will become even more hectic come summer when he has to juggle these duties (which now also include a CBS radio show in New York, and various directing gigs, including his wife's recent video, “Up Out My Face”) with his job hosting “Talent.” He landed the spot on the Simon Cowell-produced reality competition by accident after impressing NBC execs while pitching a different project.

It also helped that he walked in wearing a tuxedo. “He had bundles of charm,” says NBC's reality chief, Paul Teledgy. “He felt very grounded and old-fashioned in a way television doesn't have enough of.” While mixing TV and record-exec work with radio and reality hosting duties and acting may seem like a grab bag of random jobs, Cannon sees it as the best way to strategically target every demographic. “I'm the guy from [ages] 8 to 80 [who's] gonna entertain someone in your family,” says Cannon, who looks to Bill Cosby's career as a model.

On the home front, Cannon's five-year plan includes some “little Cannons,” but both he and Carey know raising kids in the celebrity spotlight will be a challenge: “As much as there are private jets and champagne everywhere, I want them to understand that's not what life is about.” The Hollywood clan he'd like to emulate most may surprise you (or not, considering he used to date tabloid cover girl Kim): “I always admired the Kardashian family. They're a family that really loves each other. Or even the Osbournes.”

As far as business goes, Cannon has typically lofty goals, but he's — of course — optimistic about the future: “I wanna be a billionaire in five years. It can happen. I'm speaking it into existence!”

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